Star Trek, like any other series, had some ups and downs, but most came right at the beginning. Besides the fact that it took a year to get off the ground, they were forced to go back to the drawing board after the dismal pilot. This is the episode that was delivered (even though it was the third aired). So, how was Shatner’s first outing in the captain’s chair?
The plot was fairly straight forward from the start, but took a few twists and turns along the way. The episode begins with the crew about to enter the edge of the galaxy, (which is apparently shrouded in an energy field cause … reasons?) and shortly before they enter the field they discover the black box recorder for the S.S. Valiant, a ship that had attempted this journey some two hundred years before. They determine from this recorder that after entering the field the captain ordered the ship self-destructed after frantically searching for anything relating to ESP (extra sensory perception). So in light of this the Enterprise turns around and they decide to explore something else … nope. They rush headlong into the field almost immediately after hearing this recorder and guess what happens? One of the members of the crew is affected by the field and is given super powers. The rest of the episode revolves around finding the most humane way of disposing of the crewman while also protecting the ship and crew.
There’s a gaping plot hole
Well, that or you can look at it as a character flaw, but the way in which they build up Kirk makes it seem like it’s just a good ol’ fashioned plot hole. So, after hearing the logs of the Valiant they waste no time going into the field. It would have made sense if they had tried to investigate it further, or at least had a discussion about the pros and cons of proceeding, but that didn’t happen. The reason this doesn’t jive with Kirk’s characterization is his relationship with Gary Mitchell. Mitchell and Kirk had been friends since Mitchell attended the academy and studied under Kirk (then a lieutenant). There was a huge deal made about how difficult his class was because of how intelligent you had to be, therefore it seems it was just what the plot demanded so there you go. Without that action the whole reason for the story falls apart. That being said, if you take out that one issue, the whole story stands upright.
The Kirk/Spock dynamic is strong
As Mitchell succumbs to madness, Kirk and Spock continuously discuss what ought to be done. Spock is, as you would expect, seemingly cold and uncaring. He advocates that Kirk kill Mitchell “while you still can.” Kirk, of course, rejects this. He and Mitchell had been friends for years, and he couldn’t just off him. That’s why Kirk decides on dropping Mitchell off at Delta Vega as it is more humane (even though we can infer later that without his powers Mitchell would have just starved to death). That being said, as the plot progresses, and Mitchell becomes more dangerous and unhinged, we see that not only was Spock right, but that he too cares. The episode is bookended by two brief discussions between these two. The first one is while they play chess Kirk beats Spock (and he is visibly irritated) and then at the end while Kirk lies about what happened to Mitchel in his log, Spock admits that “I felt for [Mitchell] too.” Underneath all the words, Spock understands the emotion, he just can’t allow it to affect his judgement, and considering the whole episode Kirk allows his emotions to override his reasoning, it makes for a fascinating dichotomy.
Mitchell is a great villain
Aside from his deep friendship with Kirk, Gary Lockwood’s performance as Mitchell is not just fantastic, but the way in which he physically changes from sane, normal Mitchell to drunk-with-power Mitchell is fantastic to watch. Part of this is an unintended consequence of the contacts Lockwood used to make his eyes glow. The contacts were heavy and the only way that he could see was to elevate his chin and stare down his nose. It creates this sense of aloofness that comes out in his performance as he compares the people who used to be his friends to mice.
Unlike “The Cage” which felt like a movie (and which also cost significantly more than this episode), this one feels more like what we would expect from a low budget scifi show in the 60s. You would have never known just watching this episode that the director of photography wasn’t just any ordinary Academy Award winner, but Ernest Haller, who won the award for Gone with the Wind and helped make almost two hundred other films. That being said, there’s nothing special about this episode cinematically other than the final sequence.
I’m really torn about how to grade this part. The episode grapples with a number of factors. It examines the morality of ends justifying the means via Spock advocating murdering Mitchell. By that point, Mitchell had done nothing wrong, everything was still supposition on Spock’s part.
It looks at how absolute power can corrupt a man, and at what point a man can still be a man. Through to the end, Dr. Dehner advocates that a new breed of super men can’t necessarily be a bad thing, and in a way her actions prove it. Mitchell seemed from the beginning to be a little bit arrogant (especially after making a sexist remark about Dr. Dehner being cold), and after she inherits the same power he has, instead of becoming evil, she is instrumental in helping Kirk defeat Mitchell. It’s also rather poetic in how a group of civilized men, with space ships and ray guns, who espouse philosophy like it’s second nature to them, end their conflict in a bare knuckle brawl with Kirk nearly ending it by crushing Mitchell’s skull with a rock.
With all that being said, however, the show still feels off. Spock doesn’t feel quite right. McCoy isn’t in the episode at all. Sulu is a physicist and not the helmsman. It fits all the right story beats together with the themes that become quintessential Star Trek, but they don’t have all the pieces, namely the characters and their dynamics.
Red Shirt Kill Count: STILL ZERO
Assorted mental notes:
- For the people who said Spock would never strand Kirk on Delta Vega in Star Trek (2009), guess what, Spock came up with the idea of stranding Mitchell on a planet in this episode.
- Both planets are called Delta Vega
- There is also an excellent “You should have killed me when you had the chance (Charles)!” moment between Mitchell and Kirk. It made me think of this:
To see what we think of the next episode, follow the link below: